Someone else’s shoes

Geoffrey Hawthorn

  • A Treatise on Social Justice. Vol. I: Theories of Justice by Brian Barry
    Harvester, 428 pp, £30.00, May 1989, ISBN 0 7450 0641 8
  • Innocence and Experience by Stuart Hampshire
    Allen Lane, 195 pp, £16.95, October 1989, ISBN 0 7139 9027 9

As Brian Barry suggests, the question of justice arises when custom loses its grip; when the prevailing social myth and what Stuart Hampshire calls its ‘fallacy of false fixity’ – that relations cannot be other than they are – is exposed. This is not to say that new fixed entities are never then proposed to replace the myth. Plato’s divisions of the soul and their reflection in the state, the liberals’ titles rooted in first possession, the Marxists’ resolution of real contradictions, and Moore’s directly intuited Good are only four of the more notorious past instances. But even if we were to regard suggestions of this sort and the arguments to support them as more than an intellectually elaborate way of ‘thumping on the table’, which Barry does not, they would, as he says, still leave us with the old puzzle of ‘how moral judgments can provide us with reasons for acting if they consist of reports about the existence of a peculiar set of objects’. They would leave us with ‘no sufficient place’, as Hampshire puts it, ‘for the distinction between theoretical reason and practical reason, between thinking about actualities and thinking about possibilities’. They are suggestions of a kind for which neither writer, quite rightly, has time.

There are two more promising lines of argument. The first is the one that Plato gave to Thrasymachus and Glaucon in the Republic, the argument that Plato himself clearly thought he had to beat: that justice, to be acceptable to the powerful, must always be to their advantage. ‘People say that injustice is by nature good to inflict but evil to suffer,’ Glaucon argues. ‘Men taste both of its sides and learn that the evil of suffering it exceeds the good of inflicting it. Those unable to flee the one and take the other therefore decide that it pays to make a pact neither to commit nor to suffer injustice.’ Justice is ‘midway between the best condition – committing injustice without being punished – and the worst – suffering injustice without getting revenge’. It is honoured, if at all, ‘out of inability to do wrong’. The contrary view is that justice should be independent of existing powers and particular interests; ‘cherished as a good’ for itself.

Most of those who have more recently thought about the matter (and who do not believe, as Alasdair MacIntyre and Charles Taylor now do, that in losing an encompassing faith we have lost all capacity to talk about the public good at all) agree that our own present sense of what, exactly, these two more lively kinds of argument for justice now are, and of how we might decide between them, owes almost everything to John Rawls. Barry, certainly, has no doubt: Rawls is simply ‘the greatest political philosopher of the century’. But Rawls’s qualities, as Barry describes them, his sense of the range of considerations, his subtlety, his sheer fertility, together with his desire for derivation, for system, are also his difficulty. He has written one book, A Theory of Justice, which was published in 1971; and less than half a dozen long articles; yet the bibliography of commentaries, which goes only to 1981, runs to several hundred entries. (Harvard undergraduates marvel at his course, which consists entirely, they report, of replies to replies to what’s affectionately become known as ‘TJ’.) The confusion and dispute about him seem as great as ever.

This is not because Rawls has wavered about what justice, if we had it, would be. He has always wanted to say that it would consist in a set of institutions which offered everyone the same opportunity to acquire a set of ‘primary goods’ and generated a distribution of rewards that made the worst-off as well off as they could be. There are problems in plenty, of course, even here: in fixing on the primary goods themselves; in deciding what would count as an unacceptably unequal opportunity to acquire them; in agreeing that an unequal distribution of rewards would indeed be to the greater benefit of the least well-off if – as might be likely in the kind of market society that Rawls favours – it would give the better-off disproportionately more; and much else. Barry examines most of them. The alternative, however, is clear. It’s that we should abandon the idea of justice and settle for trying to maximise our existing preferences.

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